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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsDiscoveries Made Upon Men And Matter - What Is A Poet? Poem?--Poem, Poesy, Fable...
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Discoveries Made Upon Men And Matter - What Is A Poet? Poem?--Poem, Poesy, Fable... Post by :AndyW Category :Nonfictions Author :Ben Jonson Date :May 2012 Read :1000

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Discoveries Made Upon Men And Matter - What Is A Poet? Poem?--Poem, Poesy, Fable...

What is a Poet?

Poeta.--A poet is that which by the Greeks is called (Greek text), a maker, or a feigner: his art, an art of imitation or feigning; expressing the life of man in fit measure, numbers, and harmony, according to Aristotle; from the word (Greek text), which signifies to make or feign. Hence he is called a poet, not he which writeth in measure only, but that feigneth and formeth a fable, and writes things like the truth. For the fable and fiction is, as it were, the form and soul of any poetical work or poem.

 

What mean, you by a Poem?

Poema.--A poem is not alone any work or composition of the poet's in many or few verses; but even one verse alone sometimes makes a perfect poem. As when AEneas hangs up and consecrates the arms of Abas with this inscription:-


"AEneas haec de Danais victoribus arma." {136a}


Footnote: {136a} "AEneas dedicates these arms concerning the conquering Greeks."--Virg. AEn. lib. 3.


And calls it a poem or carmen. Such are those in Martial:-


"Omnia, Castor, emis: sic fiet, ut omnia vendas." {136b}


And -


"Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper." {136c}


Horatius.--Lucretius.--So were Horace's odes called Carmina, his lyric songs. And Lucretius designs a whole book in his sixth:-


"Quod in primo quoque carmine claret." {136d}


Footnote: {136b}"You buy everything, Castor; the time will come when you will sell everything."--Martial, lib. 8, epig. 19.

Footnote: {136c} "Cinna wishes to seem poor, and is poor."

Footnote: {136d} "Which is evident in every first song."

 

Epicum.--Dramaticum.--Lyricum.--Elegiacum.--Epigrammat.--And anciently all the oracles were called Carmina; or whatever sentence was expressed, were it much or little, it was called an Epic, Dramatic, Lyric, Elegiac, or Epigrammatic poem.

 

But how differs a Poem from what we call Poesy?

Poesis.--Artium regina.--Poet. differentiae.--Grammatic.--Logic.-- Rhetoric.--Ethica.--A poem, as I have told you, is the work of the poet; the end and fruit of his labour and study. Poesy is his skill or craft of making; the very fiction itself, the reason or form of the work. And these three voices differ, as the thing done, the doing, and the doer; the thing feigned, the feigning, and the feigner; so the poem, the poesy, and the poet. Now the poesy is the habit or the art; nay, rather the queen of arts, which had her original from heaven, received thence from the Hebrews, and had in prime estimation with the Greeks transmitted to the Latins and all nations that professed civility. The study of it (if we will trust Aristotle) offers to mankind a certain rule and pattern of living well and happily, disposing us to all civil offices of society. If we will believe Tully, it nourisheth and instructeth our youth, delights our age, adorns our prosperity, comforts our adversity, entertains us at home, keeps us company abroad, travels with us, watches, divides the times of our earnest and sports, shares in our country recesses and recreations; insomuch as the wisest and best learned have thought her the absolute mistress of manners and nearest of kin to virtue. And whereas they entitle philosophy to be a rigid and austere poesy, they have, on the contrary, styled poesy a dulcet and gentle philosophy, which leads on and guides us by the hand to action with a ravishing delight and incredible sweetness. But before we handle the kinds of poems, with their special differences, or make court to the art itself, as a mistress, I would lead you to the knowledge of our poet by a perfect information what he is or should be by nature, by exercise, by imitation, by study, and so bring him down through the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the ethics, adding somewhat out of all, peculiar to himself, and worthy of your admittance or reception.

1. Ingenium.--Seneca.--Plato.--Aristotle.--Helicon.--Pegasus.-- Parnassus.--Ovid.--First, we require in our poet or maker (for that title our language affords him elegantly with the Greek) a goodness of natural wit. For whereas all other arts consist of doctrine and precepts, the poet must be able by nature and instinct to pour out the treasure of his mind, and as Seneca saith, Aliquando secundum Anacreontem insanire jucundum esse; by which he understands the poetical rapture. And according to that of Plato, Frustra poeticas fores sui compos pulsavit. And of Aristotle, Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit. Nec potest grande aliquid, et supra caeteros loqui, nisi mota mens. Then it riseth higher, as by a divine instinct, when it contemns common and known conceptions. It utters somewhat above a mortal mouth. Then it gets aloft and flies away with his rider, whither before it was doubtful to ascend. This the poets understood by their Helicon, Pegasus, or Parnassus; and this made Ovid to boast,


"Est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo
Sedibus aethereis spiritus ille venit." {139a}


Footnote: {139a}"There is a god within us, and when he is stirred we grow warm; that spirit comes from heavenly realms."


Lipsius.--Petron. in. Fragm.--And Lipsius to affirm, Scio, poetam neminem praestantem fuisse, sine parte quadam uberiore divinae aurae. And hence it is that the coming up of good poets (for I mind not mediocres or imos) is so thin and rare among us. Every beggarly corporation affords the State a mayor or two bailiffs yearly; but Solus rex, aut poeta, non quotannis nascitur. To this perfection of nature in our poet we require exercise of those parts, and frequent.

2. Exercitatio.--Virgil.--Scaliger.--Valer. Maximus.--Euripides.-- Alcestis.--If his wit will not arrive suddenly at the dignity of the ancients, let him not yet fall out with it, quarrel, or be over hastily angry; offer to turn it away from study in a humour, but come to it again upon better cogitation; try another time with labour. If then it succeed not, cast not away the quills yet, nor scratch the wainscot, beat not the poor desk, but bring all to the forge and file again; torn it anew. There is no statute law of the kingdom bids you be a poet against your will or the first quarter; if it comes in a year or two, it is well. The common rhymers pour forth verses, such as they are, ex tempore; but there never comes from them one sense worth the life of a day. A rhymer and a poet are two things. It is said of the incomparable Virgil that he brought forth his verses like a bear, and after formed them with licking. Scaliger the father writes it of him, that he made a quantity of verses in the morning, which afore night he reduced to a less number. But that which Valerius Maximus hath left recorded of Euripides, the tragic poet, his answer to Alcestis, another poet, is as memorable as modest; who, when it was told to Alcestis that Euripides had in three days brought forth but three verses, and those with some difficulty and throes, Alcestis, glorying he could with ease have sent forth a hundred in the space, Euripides roundly replied, "Like enough; but here is the difference: thy verses will not last these three days, mine will to all time." Which was as much as to tell him he could not write a verse. I have met many of these rattles that made a noise and buzzed. They had their hum, and no more. Indeed, things wrote with labour deserve to be so read, and will last their age.

3. Imitatio.--Horatius.--Virgil.--Statius.--Homer.--Horat.-- Archil.--Alcaeus, &c.--The third requisite in our poet or maker is imitation, to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use. To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him till he grow very he, or so like him as the copy may be mistaken for the principal. Not as a creature that swallows what it takes in crude, raw, or undigested, but that feeds with an appetite, and hath a stomach to concoct, divide, and turn all into nourishment. Not to imitate servilely, as Horace saith, and catch at vices for virtue, but to draw forth out of the best and choicest flowers, with the bee, and turn all into honey, work it into one relish and savour; make our imitation sweet; observe how the best writers have imitated, and follow them. How Virgil and Statius have imitated Homer; how Horace, Archilochus; how Alcaeus, and the other lyrics; and so of the rest.

4. Lectio.--Parnassus.--Helicon.--Arscoron.--M. T. Cicero.-- Simylus.--Stob.--Horat.--Aristot.--But that which we especially require in him is an exactness of study and multiplicity of reading, which maketh a full man, not alone enabling him to know the history or argument of a poem and to report it, but so to master the matter and style, as to show he knows how to handle, place, or dispose of either with elegancy when need shall be. And not think he can leap forth suddenly a poet by dreaming he hath been in Parnassus, or having washed his lips, as they say, in Helicon. There goes more to his making than so; for to nature, exercise, imitation, and study art must be added to make all these perfect. And though these challenge to themselves much in the making up of our maker, it is Art only can lead him to perfection, and leave him there in possession, as planted by her hand. It is the assertion of Tully, if to an excellent nature there happen an accession or conformation of learning and discipline, there will then remain somewhat noble and singular. For, as Simylus saith in Stobaeus, (Greek text), without art nature can never be perfect; and without nature art can claim no being. But our poet must beware that his study be not only to learn of himself; for he that shall affect to do that confesseth his ever having a fool to his master. He must read many, but ever the best and choicest; those that can teach him anything he must ever account his masters, and reverence. Among whom Horace and (he that taught him) Aristotle deserved to be the first in estimation. Aristotle was the first accurate critic and truest judge--nay, the greatest philosopher the world ever had--for he noted the vices of all knowledges in all creatures, and out of many men's perfections in a science he formed still one art. So he taught us two offices together, how we ought to judge rightly of others, and what we ought to imitate specially in ourselves. But all this in vain without a natural wit and a poetical nature in chief. For no man, so soon as he knows this or reads it, shall be able to write the better; but as he is adapted to it by nature, he shall grow the perfecter writer. He must have civil prudence and eloquence, and that whole; not taken up by snatches or pieces in sentences or remnants when he will handle business or carry counsels, as if he came then out of the declaimer's gallery, or shadow furnished but out of the body of the State, which commonly is the school of men.

Virorum schola respub.--Lysippus.--Apelles.--Naevius.--The poet is the nearest borderer upon the orator, and expresseth all his virtues, though he be tied more to numbers, is his equal in ornament, and above him in his strengths. And (of the kind) the comic comes nearest; because in moving the minds of men, and stirring of affections (in which oratory shows, and especially approves her eminence), he chiefly excels. What figure of a body was Lysippus ever able to form with his graver, or Apelles to paint with his pencil, as the comedy to life expresseth so many and various affections of the mind? There shall the spectator see some insulting with joy, others fretting with melancholy, raging with anger, mad with love, boiling with avarice, undone with riot, tortured with expectation, consumed with fear; no perturbation in common life but the orator finds an example of it in the scene. And then for the elegancy of language, read but this inscription on the grave of a comic poet:


"Immortales mortales si fas esset fiere,
Flerent divae Camoenae Naevium poetam;
Itaque postquam est Orcino traditus thesauro,
Obliti sunt Romae lingua loqui Latina." {146a}


Footnote: {146a}"If it were allowable for immortals to weep for mortals, the Muses would weep for the poet Naevius; since he is handed to the chamber of Orcus, they have forgotten how to speak Latin at Rome.


L. AElius Stilo.--Plautus.--M. Varro.--Or that modester testimony given by Lucius AElius Stilo upon Plautus, who affirmed, "Musas, si Latine loqui voluissent, Plautino sermone fuisse loquuturas." And that illustrious judgment by the most learned M. Varro of him, who pronounced him the prince of letters and elegancy in the Roman language.

Sophocles.--I am not of that opinion to conclude a poet's liberty within the narrow limits of laws which either the grammarians or philosophers prescribe. For before they found out those laws there were many excellent poets that fulfilled them, amongst whom none more perfect than Sophocles, who lived a little before Aristotle.

Demosthenes.--Pericles.--Alcibiades.--Which of the Greeklings durst ever give precepts to Demosthenes? or to Pericles, whom the age surnamed Heavenly, because he seemed to thunder and lighten with his language? or to Alcibiades, who had rather Nature for his guide than Art for his master?

Aristotle.--But whatsoever nature at any time dictated to the most happy, or long exercise to the most laborious, that the wisdom and learning of Aristotle hath brought into an art, because he understood the causes of things; and what other men did by chance or custom he doth by reason; and not only found out the way not to err, but the short way we should take not to err.

Euripides.--Aristophanes.--Many things in Euripides hath Aristophanes wittily reprehended, not out of art, but out of truth. For Euripides is sometimes peccant, as he is most times perfect. But judgment when it is greatest, if reason doth not accompany it, is not ever absolute.

Cens. Scal. in Lil. Germ.--Horace.--To judge of poets is only the faculty of poets; and not of all poets, but the best. Nemo infelicius de poetis judicavit, quam qui de poetis scripsit. {148a} But some will say critics are a kind of tinkers, that make more faults than they mend ordinarily. See their diseases and those of grammarians. It is true, many bodies are the worse for the meddling with; and the multitude of physicians hath destroyed many sound patients with their wrong practice. But the office of a true critic or censor is, not to throw by a letter anywhere, or damn an innocent syllable, but lay the words together, and amend them; judge sincerely of the author and his matter, which is the sign of solid and perfect learning in a man. Such was Horace, an author of much civility, and (if any one among the heathen can be) the best master both of virtue and wisdom; an excellent and true judge upon cause and reason, not because he thought so, but because he knew so out of use and experience.

Cato, the grammarian, a defender of Lucilius. {149a}


"Cato grammaticus, Latina syren,
Qui solus legit, et facit poetas."


Quintilian of the same heresy, but rejected. {149b}

Horace, his judgment of Choerillus defended against Joseph Scaliger.


Footnotes:

{149c} And of Laberius against Julius. {149d}

{148a}"No one has judged poets less happily than he who wrote about them."--Senec. de Brev. Vit, cap. 13, et epist. 88.

{149a} Heins, de Sat. 265.

{149b} Pag. 267.

{149c} Pag. 270. 271.

{149d} Pag. 273, et seq.


But chiefly his opinion of Plautus {149e} vindicated against many that are offended, and say it is a hard censure upon the parent of all conceit and sharpness. And they wish it had not fallen from so great a master and censor in the art, whose bondmen knew better how to judge of Plautus than any that dare patronise the family of learning in this age; who could not be ignorant of the judgment of the times in which he lived, when poetry and the Latin language were at the height; especially being a man so conversant and inwardly familiar with the censures of great men that did discourse of these things daily amongst themselves. Again, a man so gracious and in high favour with the Emperor, as Augustus often called him his witty manling (for the littleness of his stature), and, if we may trust antiquity, had designed him for a secretary of estate, and invited him to the palace, which he modestly prayed off and refused.


Footnote: {149e} Pag. in comm. 153, et seq.


Terence.--Menander. Horace did so highly esteem Terence's comedies, as he ascribes the art in comedy to him alone among the Latins, and joins him with Menander.

Now, let us see what may be said for either, to defend Horace's judgment to posterity and not wholly to condemn Plautus.

The parts of a comedy and tragedy.--The parts of a comedy are the same with a tragedy, and the end is partly the same, for they both delight and teach; the comics are called (Greek text), of the Greeks no less than the tragics.

Aristotle.--Plato.--Homer.--Nor is the moving of laughter always the end of comedy; that is rather a fowling for the people's delight, or their fooling. For, as Aristotle says rightly, the moving of laughter is a fault in comedy, a kind of turpitude that depraves some part of a man's nature without a disease. As a wry face without pain moves laughter, or a deformed vizard, or a rude clown dressed in a lady's habit and using her actions; we dislike and scorn such representations which made the ancient philosophers ever think laughter unfitting in a wise man. And this induced Plato to esteem of Homer as a sacrilegious person, because he presented the gods sometimes laughing. As also it is divinely said of Aristotle, that to seen ridiculous is a part of dishonesty, and foolish.

The wit of the old comedy.--So that what either in the words or sense of an author, or in the language or actions of men, is awry or depraved does strangely stir mean affections, and provoke for the most part to laughter. And therefore it was clear that all insolent and obscene speeches, jests upon the best men, injuries to particular persons, perverse and sinister sayings (and the rather unexpected) in the old comedy did move laughter, especially where it did imitate any dishonesty, and scurrility came forth in the place of wit, which, who understands the nature and genius of laughter cannot but perfectly know.

Aristophanes.--Plautus.--Of which Aristophanes affords an ample harvest, having not only outgone Plautus or any other in that kind, but expressed all the moods and figures of what is ridiculous oddly. In short, as vinegar is not accounted good until the wine be corrupted, so jests that are true and natural seldom raise laughter with the beast the multitude. They love nothing that is right and proper. The farther it runs from reason or possibility with them the better it is.

Socrates.--Theatrical wit.--What could have made them laugh, like to see Socrates presented, that example of all good life, honesty, and virtue, to have him hoisted up with a pulley, and there play the philosopher in a basket; measure how many foot a flea could skip geometrically, by a just scale, and edify the people from the engine. This was theatrical wit, right stage jesting, and relishing a playhouse, invented for scorn and laughter; whereas, if it had savoured of equity, truth, perspicuity, and candour, to have tasten a wise or a learned palate,--spit it out presently! this is bitter and profitable: this instructs and would inform us: what need we know any thing, that are nobly born, more than a horse-race, or a hunting-match, our day to break with citizens, and such innate mysteries?

The cart.--This is truly leaping from the stage to the tumbril again, reducing all wit to the original dung-cart.


Of the magnitude and compass of any fable, epic or dramatic.

What the measure of a fable is.--The fable or plot of a poem defined.--The epic fable, differing from the dramatic.--To the resolving of this question we must first agree in the definition of the fable. The fable is called the imitation of one entire and perfect action, whose parts are so joined and knit together, as nothing in the structure can be changed, or taken away, without impairing or troubling the whole, of which there is a proportionable magnitude in the members. As for example: if a man would build a house, he would first appoint a place to build it in, which he would define within certain bounds; so in the constitution of a poem, the action is aimed at by the poet, which answers place in a building, and that action hath his largeness, compass, and proportion. But as a court or king's palace requires other dimensions than a private house, so the epic asks a magnitude from other poems, since what is place in the one is action in the other; the difference is an space. So that by this definition we conclude the fable to be the imitation of one perfect and entire action, as one perfect and entire place is required to a building. By perfect, we understand that to which nothing is wanting, as place to the building that is raised, and action to the fable that is formed. It is perfect, perhaps not for a court or king's palace, which requires a greater ground, but for the structure he would raise; so the space of the action may not prove large enough for the epic fable, yet be perfect for the dramatic, and whole.

What we understand by whole.--Whole we call that, and perfect, which hath a beginning, a midst, and an end. So the place of any building may be whole and entire for that work, though too little for a palace. As to a tragedy or a comedy, the action may be convenient and perfect that would not fit an epic poem in magnitude. So a lion is a perfect creature in himself, though it be less than that of a buffalo or a rhinocerote. They differ but in specie: either in the kind is absolute; both have their parts, and either the whole. Therefore, as in every body so in every action, which is the subject of a just work, there is required a certain proportionable greatness, neither too vast nor too minute. For that which happens to the eyes when we behold a body, the same happens to the memory when we contemplate an action. I look upon a monstrous giant, as Tityus, whose body covered nine acres of land, and mine eye sticks upon every part; the whole that consists of those parts will never be taken in at one entire view. So in a fable, if the action be too great, we can never comprehend the whole together in our imagination. Again, if it be too little, there ariseth no pleasure out of the object; it affords the view no stay; it is beheld, and vanisheth at once. As if we should look upon an ant or pismire, the parts fly the sight, and the whole considered is almost nothing. The same happens in action, which is the object of memory, as the body is of sight. Too vast oppresseth the eyes, and exceeds the memory; too little scarce admits either.

What is the utmost bounds of a fable.--Now in every action it behoves the poet to know which is his utmost bound, how far with fitness and a necessary proportion he may produce and determine it; that is, till either good fortune change into the worse, or the worse into the better. For as a body without proportion cannot be goodly, no more can the action, either in comedy or tragedy, without his fit bounds: and every bound, for the nature of the subject, is esteemed the best that is largest, till it can increase no more; so it behoves the action in tragedy or comedy to be let grow till the necessity ask a conclusion; wherein two things are to be considered: first, that it exceed not the compass of one day; next, that there be place left for digression and art. For the episodes and digressions in a fable are the same that household stuff and other furniture are in a house. And so far from the measure and extent of a fable dramatic.

What by one and entire.--Now that it should be one and entire. One is considerable two ways; either as it is only separate, and by itself, or as being composed of many parts, it begins to be one as those parts grow or are wrought together. That it should be one the first away alone, and by itself, no man that hath tasted letters ever would say, especially having required before a just magnitude and equal proportion of the parts in themselves. Neither of which can possibly be, if the action be single and separate, not composed of parts, which laid together in themselves, with an equal and fitting proportion, tend to the same end; which thing out of antiquity itself hath deceived many, and more this day it doth deceive.

Hercules.--Theseus.--Achilles.--Ulysses.--Homer and Virgil.-- AEneas.--Venus.--So many there be of old that have thought the action of one man to be one, as of Hercules, Theseus, Achilles, Ulysses, and other heroes; which is both foolish and false, since by one and the same person many things may be severally done which cannot fitly be referred or joined to the same end: which not only the excellent tragic poets, but the best masters of the epic, Homer and Virgil, saw. For though the argument of an epic poem be far more diffused and poured out than that of tragedy, yet Virgil, writing of AEneas, hath pretermitted many things. He neither tells how he was born, how brought up, how he fought with Achilles, how he was snatched out of the battle by Venus; but that one thing, how he came into Italy, he prosecutes in twelve books. The rest of his journey, his error by sea, the sack of Troy, are put not as the argument of the work, but episodes of the argument. So Homer laid by many things of Ulysses, and handled no more than he saw tended to one and the same end.

Theseus.--Hercules.--Juvenal.--Codrus.--Sophocles.--Ajax.--Ulysses.- -Contrary to which, and foolishly, those poets did, whom the philosopher taxeth, of whom one gathered all the actions of Theseus, another put all the labours of Hercules in one work. So did he whom Juvenal mentions in the beginning, "hoarse Codrus," that recited a volume compiled, which he called his Theseide, not yet finished, to the great trouble both of his hearers and himself; amongst which there were many parts had no coherence nor kindred one with another, so far they were from being one action, one fable. For as a house, consisting of divers materials, becomes one structure and one dwelling, so an action, composed of divers parts, may become one fable, epic or dramatic. For example, in a tragedy, look upon Sophocles, his Ajax: Ajax, deprived of Achilles' armour, which he hoped from the suffrage of the Greeks, disdains; and, growing impatient of the injury, rageth, and runs mad. In that humour he doth many senseless things, and at last falls upon the Grecian flock and kills a great ram for Ulysses: returning to his senses, he grows ashamed of the scorn, and kills himself; and is by the chiefs of the Greeks forbidden burial. These things agree and hang together, not as they were done, but as seeming to be done, which made the action whole, entire, and absolute.

The conclusion concerning the whole, and the parts.--Which are episodes.--Ajax and Hector.--Homer.--For the whole, as it consisteth of parts, so without all the parts it is not the whole; and to make it absolute is required not only the parts, but such parts as are true. For a part of the whole was true; which, if you take away, you either change the whole or it is not the whole. For if it be such a part, as, being present or absent, nothing concerns the whole, it cannot be called a part of the whole; and such are the episodes, of which hereafter. For the present here is one example: the single combat of Ajax with Hector, as it is at large described in Homer, nothing belongs to this Ajax of Sophocles.

You admire no poems but such as run like a brewer's cart upon the stones, hobbling:-


"Et, quae per salebras, altaque saxa cadunt,
Accius et quidquid Pacuviusque vomunt.
Attonitusque legis terrai, frugiferai." {160a}


Footnote: {160a} "And which jolt as they fall over the rough uneven road and high rocks."--Martial, lib. xi. epig. 91.

 

(THE END)
(Ben Jonson's Writings: Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter)

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